Nail Care for Flamenco Guitar
How important is nail care for flamenco guitar? Short answer is that it’s super important. And of course the long answer is, well, long. The truth is that I don’t have all of the answers, and I don’t believe that anyone else does either. So I’ll just share some thoughts based on my years of experience.
But first I want to address those who have no nails at all – either because they haven’t grown in yet or because for some reason they can’t grow them. You can learn to play flamenco guitar without nails. The honest truth is that it may never sound exactly like your favorite player who has fewer nail-related challenges, but that doesn’t mean you can’t play. So if you’re nail-challenged and need some help, then read on. But if your work or another hobby makes it impossible for you to have nails, or if you can’t grow them for whatever reason, then stop reading now and go enjoy playing without nails!
So there are Two Big Questions regarding nails in flamenco guitar: How long and what shape, and how to care for them when that length and shape are established.
What Are Nails For?
I think it’s really helpful to understand what nails are for, and how they can help or hinder your playing and your sound. So let’s look at that first.
The nail basically acts like a guitar pick – it’s a hard surface that plucks the strings. The hardness of the nail is what gives the sound a more “percussive” or “sharp” sound. Since a harder nail will give a sharper sound, the inherent hardness of your nail, plus any stuff you put on them to make them harder, will affect the sound. The length of the nail will also affect the sound to some extent, and more so if the nail is so long that there’s a bit of a “click” that happens after the strings slides along the nail and then pops off.
What you definitely don’t want the nail to do is to slow you down, or make you fight to get the string to disengage from the nail. So we’re looking for enough nail to get a nice sharp sound, hard enough but not too hard.
There is a lot of argument about the perfect shape for nails. One view holds that the more nail surface to come in contact with the string the better. If you hold this view, then you’re looking for a flat surface of nail that will be more or less parallel to the string. Of course, this assumes that the angle of your hand/nail will be a constant, with it usually is not. Personally, I like a more or less flat nail (I leave it gently curved, but flatter than my finger tip). Some people like a ruler flat nail, and others will prefer more of a curve.
The only real way to know for sure what’s best for you is to experiment. You could start with a flat nail, parallel to the finger tip, and see how that feels and sounds for you. If the sound is too sharp you may want more of a curve.
Also, your fingers and your thumb may be quite different in the way they interact with the strings, so while I’d recommend having all of the fingers be the same basic length and shape, I wouldn’t assume that length and shape of the thumb will be the same as that of the fingers.
Here’s the Catch
As I mentioned before, a nail that’s too long can sound too sharp. It can also hinder your playing by catching – giving you more resistance than you need or want, making it harder to exit each stroke. All of that adds up to making paying harder, so I recommend playing very slowly when you’re experimenting with nail length and shape. By playing very slowly you’ll be much more likely to notice if the nail is catching. Often when we play fast we barely notice that the nails are catching, but we unconsciously play harder than we need to to counteract all of that catching. Not great.
If your nails are currently short, then I recommend starting to experiment now, and checking in on them as they grow. One day they’ll feel too long, or you’ll start catching, and that will give you a good indication of what’s too long for you.
If your nails are currently long enough that you’re curious about what a shorter nail might feel like, then my first piece of advice is to not cut them. Rather gently file them down, just a teensy bit at a time. If you cut them, you could easily cut off an amount that would take weeks or more to grow back. But if you file them down just a little bit at a time, then if you suddenly feel like you’ve gone too short it will only take a few days to grow them back.
As Short As You Can
For purely practical reasons, I recommend playing with the shortest nails that work for you. I’m not saying that shorter is necessarily better for your sound and feel. Rather I’m saying that since shorter is more practical – easier to deal with in day-to-day life and less likely to break – you might want to play around with how little nail you can use and still get the sound and feel that you want. That said, if you need the longer you need them longer.
Flamenco can be brutal on the nails. All of those rasgueados and alzapua and a technique that’s based on rest strokes can amount to bascially filing down your nails every time you play. Take a look at bass string – as you move sideways it may as well be a rasp. So if you’re not blessed with hoof-like nails, you’re likely to need to do something to protect those nails if you play more than just a little bit. There are probably even more opinions about this topic than about nail length and shape, so I’ll throw in my two cents with the caveat that they’re just that – my two cents.
I’ve been putting the same stuff on my nails for well over 20 years, and so far the nails themselves (that live under all of that stuff) are quite healthy. But I’ve heard of others who have tried what I do and had a bad reaction. I describe what I do in this video here, and as you can see it’s fiberglass paper and glue, followed by two layers of glue and nail powder (the stuff I use is made out of something called polymethyl). Again, this is just what works for me and not some magic recipe for perfect nails.
But there are two very important things that (I think) help keep my nails healthy under all of that stuff:
1) Never cover the entire nail. I was told a long time ago never to cover the entire nail, and especially not to cover the white lunula at the base of the nail. In practice I never cover more than half of the nail, and generally closer to one third of the nail than half. I don’t quite know why this is important, or even if it really is, but I’ve had good results, and there’s no real downside to it.
2) Never rip off the nail before it’s ready to come off. I’ve heard from lots of folks who complain that when they remove the goop from their nails a layer of real nail comes off with it. I get it, since it happened to me a few times when I started putting stuff on my nails. This comes from ripping off the fake stuff when the glue is still holding well. My answer to this is to never ever “rip off” a nail. I wait until the glue basically calls it quits – when you can see that there’s air below the fiberglass – at which point the whole fake part just pops off with the littlest bit of help from me. Occasionally there will be air under one part but it doesn’t pop off easily, which usually means that part of the fiberglass is still well glued. When this happens I leave it alone, and invariably the rest will want to come off soon enough (generally later that day, or within a day or two).
Another way to remove the stuff without hurting the nail is to use acetone or nail polish remover (which contains acetone but isn’t as pure). Acetone is apparently pretty terrible for your liver and kidney, and can actually affect you by seeping in through the skin, so soaking in acetone for long periods isn’t recommended. So when I really need to get a nail off but it doesn’t want to come off, I use a technique I read about on some non-guitar-related nail care forum (ah, the internet!) – I cover my finger in Vaseline and only leave the part I want to remove exposed. Then I soak for a few minutes and scrape off the part that’s become soft, then repeat as necessary until the whole fake nail part pops off.
There are many many other options for reinforcing your nails. Some folks just put a bit of super glues on the nail. Others use some toilet paper, or just the fiberglass paper, or silk, and nail glue. Some swear by various products that strengthen the nail, or products that are not quite as hard as glue but still protect the nail. Some folks love acrylics or gels, which is a process I don’t quite understand. I tried gels once – had to go to a salon and everything – and hated the sound and feel so much I used acetone to get them off (that’s when I learned the Vaseline trick, since those suckers were hard and took forever to remove). But some great players I know swear by the gels and sound great using them.
And then there are temporary nails. I haven’t tried them, but some players I respect (and, equally important, whom I believe) swear that they say on and sound good. I’d have been skeptical about both claims if I hadn’t heard them from trusted sources. Some people glue cut-up ping pong balls to their nails. Some people eat a lot of jell-o (presumably because eating horse hooves might make your hooves stronger).
So try whatever feels right for you. If you just need a little reinforcement then start small, with just glue, or fiberglass paper and glue. There are so many ways of doing this that you’ll find something that works, though you may have to be patient as you figure it out, and that will be frustrating.
But as someone who’s broken nails doing everything from chopping wood to bumping into a door knob to changing a pillow case (I kid you not), I’m a firm a believer in protecting that nails that are so essential to your sound as a guitar players. And if you have a technique you love then be sure to tell us in the comments below!